Phil Aguilar's tattoos are like the rings of a tree. They cover virtually every square inch of his skin, from his temple to his trousers, tracing his life in chronological order. The oldest one, spelled out in faded gray letters, reads, "El Friday," Aguilar's nickname in high school. "Friday was the headhunter, Robinson Crusoe's partner," Aguilar explains. "I always had this habit of starting fights, flicking cigarettes in people's faces, going after anybody who looked like they were having a nice time in life, so that's what my friends called me." Etched into one of Aguilar's shoulders is a portrait of a beautiful chola that he commissioned while in prison during the early 1970s. A close-up of the navel of an orange on Aguilar's elbow declared to inmates that he was from Orange County. Elsewhere on Aguilar are a bulldog with boxing gloves, a pair of eyeballs and a skull with a Mohawk that Aguilar improbably claims is a portrait of an ex-girlfriend.
Newer tattoos include the Star of David and illustration of a rabbi Aguilar got on a 1982 trip to Israel, six years after he found Christ while inside a small prison chapel at Chino State Prison and dedicated himself to preaching the Bible to fellow heroin addicts and ex-cons. A biker with wings bears the motto "Jesus Davidson," a reference to Aguilar's Harley-Davidson-riding biker club, the Set Free Soldiers, whose members dress in black, the club name stitched onto the backs of their leather vests above a rendering of a mustachioed biker in a German army helmet. Aguilar's right forearm reads, "Set Free in Jesus," a tattoo he got in 1976, the year he became born again and about six years before he founded a church in Anaheim called Set Free that, within a decade, grew into one of Orange County's first mega-churches, with 4,000 weekly parishioners.
But it's Aguilar's most recent tattoo that is the most noticeable. It's a whirlwind of black ink that covers the left side of his face, swirling from his forehead to his upper cheek. Aguilar says he paid for the first stage of the tattoo years ago, when he figured he'd never have to worry about job interviews again. If things had gone differently in Aguilar's life, the tattoo would have covered his entire face by now. Instead, two years ago, Aguilar and several other Soldiers brawled with the Hells Angels at the Newport Beach bar Blackie's By the Sea. A few weeks later, more than 100 rifle-toting law-enforcement officers, supported by helicopters and armored cars, surrounded his home. The raid, one of the largest paramilitary operations carried out in Orange County in recent memory, destroyed Aguilar's reputation-controversial as it already was-for good.
His sudden downfall provided a dramatic conclusion to one of the most awe-inspiring, if bizarre, religious movements in a county famous for spawning evangelists: the transformation of thousands of dangerous hoodlums, addicts and ne'er-do-wells other churches avoided like the plague into a flock of devoted followers who viewed Aguilar as their shepherd. But his charismatic style of Christianity eventually became his own undoing, making it possible for prosecutors to charge him with attempted murder thanks to a fight in which, by all accounts, Aguilar never threw a punch.
All of which explains his abruptly aborted facial tattoo. "Knowing I had to go to court, I decided to leave the tattoo like it was," Aguilar explains.
"People ask me if it has a spiritual meaning," he adds. "The truth is, I just think it looks cool."
Until the melee at Blackie's put him behind bars again, Phillip Russell Aguilar hadn't crossed the law for 34 years. It's a period of time that saw a remarkable turnaround in a life that up to that point had spiraled downward into delinquency, violence, drug addiction and self-destruction. The road that led Aguilar to the dark night of his soul and, by his reckoning, into the clear light of love and redemption began in 1947 in the Olive Street neighborhood of Anaheim, where Aguilar was born to a bricklayer and stay-at-home mom who doted over him and his seven siblings.
When he was about 12 years old, Aguilar discovered his father was having an affair with the cleaning lady. "Next thing I know, he moves in with this woman and, boom, has two kids who are going to the same school as me," he says. "I'm mad at my mom, mad at the world and just didn't give a shit about anybody." Aguilar began skipping classes with his friends in a gang he started called the Olive Street Crew, drinking and smoking pot, and ripping off trains that rolled through his neighborhood.
By the time Aguilar was 19, he had bleached his hair in an attempt to fit in with his white friends and passed his time selling marijuana, trying to get laid and surfing at Orange County's beaches. For a while, he tagged along with some kids from Anaheim High School who dropped LSD religiously every weekend, hiking into Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs and experiencing unforgettable acid. "I got really into it," he recalls. "I traded all my rock & roll for Ravi Shankar, gave up sex, became a little monk-and then I got busted for $10 [worth] of pot."
He quickly learned that being a hippie behind bars wasn't such a great idea. "I was practicing yoga, and this big white guy told me that wasn't acceptable," he says. "Then I saw this hippie-looking effeminate kid, and these cool guys I'm talking to take him into this cell and rape him. It was an eye-opener, and all of a sudden, I'm thinking about fighting again."
Upon being released from jail in 1969, Aguilar got married; fathered a son, Geronimo; and quickly sank back into the depths. After a few years of nonstop cocaine use, he left his wife and son behind and graduated to heroin. He also fell in love with a 22-year-old woman named Sandra De Falco. She was engaged to someone else at the time, but Aguilar charmed her, and they remain together to this day. "I was fooled," she says. "He was a very charismatic guy. I started dating him; I helped him get a job. I became his helper. It's been 34 years, and I'm still with him."
De Falco convinced him to try to get clean, and Aguilar spent a brief stint at a Jehovah's Witness-run rehabilitation clinic in Oregon. He then returned to Anaheim, hoping to get a fresh start. But he immediately fell back into his old lifestyle, selling cocaine with his brother, who asked him to pick up $100,000 worth of pure Peruvian rock in Ojai and deliver it to a house in Orange County. "By the time I started driving back with it, I decided to pinch a little bit for myself," Aguilar says. "Then a little bit more, and then it was, ‘Fuck those guys; I'm taking all of it.'"
Guarding his ever-diminishing bag of coke, Aguilar blockaded himself in the apartment he shared with De Falco and her 3-year-old son, cranked up the music, and started to get high.
What happened next, Aguilar says, is blurry in his mind. "I started doing speedballs, mixing heroin with coke, and started getting nutty," he says. "The neighbors started complaining, and this one lady said something, and, boom, I knocked her. Then my stepson did something, and I just whacked him. I didn't think anything of it at the time."
Responding to a domestic-violence call, police rushed into Aguilar's apartment and caught him trying to flush the remainder of his stash down the toilet. "When they arrested me, it was a relief," Aguilar says. By then, he weighed around 130 pounds, his face more skull than skin.
Aguilar pled guilty to assault. At Chino State Prison, several months into his newfound sobriety, Aguilar experienced an awakening. "One day at chapel call, I sat in a small room and heard someone talk about Jesus," he says. "And I made a decision that day. I knew I wanted to change my life around. I became an addict for the Lord. I asked Jesus to come into my heart. I was such a good inmate they let me out [after] just under two years."
While behind bars, Aguilar married De Falco, much to her parents' dismay, and moved back to Anaheim upon his release from prison in 1978. Together, they raised two sons, Matthew and Philip Jr. His first job was sweeping streets for Anaheim's maintenance department. "Then God told me he wanted me to go to Bible college," he says. While taking classes at Pacific Baptist College in San Dimas, Aguilar worked his way up the ranks of the Anaheim Baptist Church from youth pastor to assistant pastor to co-pastor. It didn't take him long to realize he wasn't cut out to be a Baptist minister, at least not in the traditional sense.
"I didn't want to do organ music," he explains. "I wanted to do rock music, punk music, and ride my Harley." Fellow Baptists told him he could ride a Honda, but a Harley was out of the question. "They said, ‘You're a little too wild for us, your music is too loud, you are hanging around with tongue-talking Christians, playing guitar. You're not a good conservative Baptist.' That's why I started Set Free."
Aguilar's new church started in a friend's living room in 1982, but with help from then-Anaheim Mayor Dan Roth, it moved into a large warehouse on Anaheim Boulevard-just up the street from City Hall-and quickly grew into one of the largest churches in Orange County. Pastors from other churches began referring their wilder-looking members to Aguilar, who took all comers regardless of their appearance, demeanor or past criminal record. Set Free's ranks swelled each week, and before long, Aguilar had moved his family, including his estranged oldest son and Geronimo's wife, into a pair of houses in north Anaheim.
Nearby were other homes for recovering addicts that Aguilar purchased and ran like homeless shelters, complete with "overseers" who made sure nobody used drugs, drank alcohol or otherwise engaged in what Aguilar called "backsliding" activities. Set Free opened a rehabilitation ranch and communal homes in the Inland Empire.
His success in attracting hardcore followers from the ranks of Southern California's street gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Hells Angels, Mongols and Vagos earned Aguilar fame in both the secular and Christian press. Cementing his outreach to the biker gangs was his first Christian motorcycle ministry, Servants for Christ, which later morphed into the Set Free Soldiers, which consisted of Aguilar's toughest, most muscle-bound congregants-all of them, like him, covered in tattoos.
Aguilar's profile increased when televangelists Jan and Paul Crouch of Costa Mesa's Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) offered him a television show and even invited him to join the board of directors. "I was a novelty for them," Aguilar says. "I had long hair and a ponytail and Ray-Ban sunglasses, and with my own Friday-night TV show, people thought I was somebody."
Another fan of Aguilar was Oden Fong, a Christian rock musician who, by the early 1980s, was a pastor with Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. Calvary was also ministering to society's unwanted-in this case, flower children turned Jesus freaks. "I thought it was great," Fong recalls of Set Free. "I thought we really needed a church like that that would reach out to the gang members and the drug addicts and all the people that were so dark and wayward. I wanted to go up and hang out with them."
Seeing Aguilar in action, though, Fong felt the pastor's grasp of scripture somewhat lacking, a deficiency at least partially overcome by his energetic preaching style. "Set Free were trying to be Christians in their own way, but they weren't getting a lot of instruction from the Bible," Fong says. "They were getting it from their pastor, but their pastor wasn't giving them a lot. ‘You need to get saved! You need to be a good person'-stuff like that. But he never really taught them how to change because he still had to have this persona of being tough, cool, on the edge, thumbing his nose at the rest of the church."
Nevertheless, Fong-who worked closely with Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith-began referring members of Calvary's various congregations to Set Free. "If someone was too wild or too tatted, we'd send them there," Fong says. "Set Free grew really fast that way because there was no church like theirs. They were cutting-edge."
Fong's impression of Aguilar changed, however, when several former Set Free members came to Calvary Chapel asking to talk to Smith about Aguilar. Smith asked Fong to handle the meeting. The group, which included the parents of Geronimo's wife, complained that Aguilar ran Set Free like a cult leader and that he pressured members not to visit their relatives.
"They were saying, ‘We need your help,'" Fong recalls. "'Set Free has taken our children and has turned them against us and is keeping them from seeing us.'" Lacking any authority to censure the leader of another church, Fong says, his first instinct was to not get involved. But the Set Free defectors, with their tales of Aguilar's verbally abusive behavior and controlling leadership style, persisted. Finally, Fong's secretary received a four-page list of complaints.
"They were all control issues," says Fong. "Phil would tell people who they could marry and who they couldn't marry. He had girls scrubbing bleachers with toothbrushes, just things that were pretty raw and forceful." Realizing the serious nature of the allegations, Fong decided Calvary should share the information with other churches and shouldn't refer anyone to Set Free until the matter was cleared up.
Fliers bearing photographs of Aguilar and the name of his church were circulated throughout the country, leading religious groups to successfully shut down efforts by Set Free to open churches in locations such as Hesperia, Lake Elsinore, among others. Fong also agreed to an interview with KCOP-TV Channel 13. When a reporter asked him why people were comparing Aguilar to Jim Jones and David Koresh, Fong responded, "Because people feel like they can't live without him." The station broadcast his words over a video montage showing piles of bodies at the Jones compound in Guyana and the burning buildings of the Koresh compound in Waco, Texas.
In the midst of the controversy, Orange County Register reporters visited Aguilar at the Set Free compound and asked for his side of the story. The paper's devastating June 9, 1991, report-splashed across the front page, featuring multiple articles-quoted people who had lived in Set Free homes complaining about having to work essentially as unpaid servants for Aguilar and other family members and noted that during their interviews with Aguilar, he paused and pointed at "a middle-aged woman who has lived in his homes for three years," telling the reporters "she even picks up my dirty underwear." It revealed a pastor who publicly said he lived in poverty but privately owned classic cars, flashy motorcycles and leather jackets, and it disclosed Aguilar had not only assaulted De Falco's son, but also physically abused the 7-year-old son of a former girlfriend during his drug days.
"All of a sudden, I'm getting cancellation letters from all over the country where I was going to speak," Aguilar recalls. "Everywhere I turned, there was Oden saying these things."
Aguilar's response was to go on the offensive. "This guy didn't know me," Aguilar says of Fong. "I didn't know him. Who is this guy?" Aguilar demanded a meeting with Chuck Smith, hoping to convince him to force Fong to "shut up." When that didn't work, he unsuccessfully sued Fong and another Calvary Chapel pastor for slander. He also sent members to confront Fong at Calvary Chapel.
"Phil was getting frustrated, and that's when the intimidation started," Fong recalls. "Once, he sent, like, 80 guys to my Bible study. These were 80 kids from the homes, and they were really disruptive, yelling, making noise." Another time, Aguilar reportedly sent a group of Set Free Soldiers to wait for Fong outside his church. "They all tightened in a circle around me so that the only way I could get out was to push my way physically out of the midst of them. They probably figured I wouldn't do that."
Aguilar's tactics only deepened Fong's suspicion that something was seriously amiss within Set Free. "It was just the strangest vibe," he says. "All of my senses were telling me that there was something wrong, but it was just this nebulous thing." But more dissidents came forth. One former member of Aguilar's biker club told Fong that physical abuse was part of the Set Free Soldiers' program. "He was one of the biggest guys in the motorcycle club," Fong says. "He said that Phil would have the guys beat him up, just to help him a little bit. Things like that-they were just really rough people, and they didn't seem transformed by their faith to be kind and loving, like Christians are discipled to be."
Other problems began hounding Aguilar. He and Set Free were named in a lawsuit alleging one of his ministers sexually abused a teen and smoked crack cocaine with him at a Texas ranch owned by TBN but operated by Set Free; details of the settlement weren't disclosed. Another lawsuit claimed an Aguilar pastor assaulted a Set Free member who wanted out. The negative press precipitated a rapid downturn in Aguilar's efforts to turn Set Free into a worldwide church. Among other things, it led TBN to cancel Aguilar's TV show and dismiss him from the board of directors. It didn't help matters that Aguilar publicly claimed he was just a figurehead on the TBN board, a token minority whose presence allowed the Crouches to purchase more television stations around the country.
Aguilar's affiliation with TBN and the controversy swirling around Set Free were covered extensively in the Christian Sentinel, a Philadelphia-based watchdog newspaper published by Bill and Jackie Alnor. "We felt that TBN was a threat to Christianity, and we still believe that," Jackie Alnor says. "We also became big critics of Phil. He was a useful idiot for TBN. They used him because he had a nice, Hispanic last name, and they wanted to expand from 12 major networks to 14. They tossed him aside when he was no longer useful to them."
Alnor has since had a change of mind about Aguilar, she says. "He's scary, okay? You can look at Phil and be intimidated," she says. "But he reaches people that other people will not go near. He has passed the test of time by continuing to reach out to the dregs of society."
In 1993, Set Free lost its lease for the large warehouse where it had held services for a decade, and Aguilar decided he'd had enough of Anaheim. More than 6,000 people attended his farewell service at Glover Stadium. After an abortive run as a street pastor in Venice Beach, he headed east to Echo Park to operate the Dream Center at the defunct Queen of Angels Hospital. Aguilar's new ministry catered specifically to inner-city youths seeking to escape the gang life.
Aguilar's son Matthew was a teenager during Set Free's Los Angeles stint. "We started a basketball league in the church," he says. "We were cool. We knew how to make friends." Hip-hop served as the icebreaker, he adds, in the form of a rap-and-breakdancing posse called Set Free (West Coast Flava). "We would go to all the high schools-Belmont, Dorsey, Roosevelt, you name it-every high school, junior high and elementary, two or three times a day, showing them how we can be positive through music and do it without drugs or gangs."
The act soon went national, and then, thanks to a boost from the military, overseas. "The first place we were invited was Bosnia," Matthew says. "We went to Macedonia, Kosovo, the Balkans." Recent trips brought him to the active war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. "It was so close to the action you could see the rockets at night and hear the sounds and see the shrapnel that hit the base the day before," he recalls. "These guys come back screwed up. They've seen stuff that nobody should see. We went there because we care about those dudes. We did it to help them get their minds off these things."
Back in Anaheim, Set Free increasingly ministered to biker gangs through the Set Free Soldiers. Matthew, who aside from his hip-hop work also made videos for the church, often filmed weddings and funerals for gangs such as the Mongols while his father officiated.
The club's outlaw image didn't go unnoticed by the cops. In Buena Park, police detained Matthew after he finished filming a Mongol funeral at a local cemetery, figuring Set Free worked security for them.
Law enforcement's suspicion the Set Free Soldiers were really just another outlaw biker gang was bolstered by an event that took place early in the afternoon of July 27, 2008. That morning, Aguilar and about 15 Soldiers rode out from Anaheim to Aliso Viejo to watch one of the teenagers in Aguilar's ministry compete in a skim-board contest. Then the group drove north along Pacific Coast Highway to see the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
Just after 1:30 p.m., Aguilar and his entourage rolled into tourist-and-sunbather-packed Newport Beach for lunch. The group split up; some members strolled over to TK Burgers, others searched for an ice-cream stand. Aguilar and half a dozen Set Free Soldiers, including Matthew, walked into Blackie's By the Sea, a popular pub.
Black-and-white security footage recorded at Blackie's that afternoon shows Aguilar walking past a pool table to the bar, taking off his Set Free Soldiers vest and placing it on the back of a barstool-an act prosecutors claimed was a gang-related act of intimidation. A few minutes later, Aguilar exits the bar, talking on his cell phone. Prosecutors would later allege Aguilar was calling for backup, sending word to other Soldiers that they were needed for an expected rumble at the bar. Aguilar says he was calling his wife to let her know what time he was coming home, a claim backed by cell-phone records.
Five men walked into Blackie's less than two minutes after Aguilar made that phone call. They were members of the Hells Angels, the largest motorcycle gang in the world. Ninety seconds later, the barroom erupted in violence. Escorted out of harm's way into a corner by his son, Aguilar was perhaps the only one who sat out the fight. A Hells Angel hit a Soldier in the head with a pool ball, and Set Free's Jose Enrique Quiñones stabbed two Hells Angels with a knife. Quiñones is now serving eight years in prison for attempted murder. Within a minute, the fight ended as the outnumbered Hells Angels retreated from the bar.
To this day, Aguilar claims he had no idea at the time that he'd just been involved in a fight with the Hells Angels. "It happened so quickly," he says. "I kind of recognized one guy, and immediately one of the men started talking to me. I can't tell you what he said, but I was talking to him and trying to work out some kind of issue. And a fellow next to me-I only know because I've seen the video-he took a swing at another fellow who was with us but who wasn't a Set Free Soldier but who had made a negative comment."
Not realizing anyone had been stabbed and seeing no serious injuries among his flock, Aguilar says, he was in no rush to leave Newport Beach. "We didn't think we had done anything wrong, so we weren't running away," he says. But within a few minutes, roughly a dozen Newport Beach police officers responding to the fight detained Aguilar and the other Soldiers. No arrests were made, and Aguilar assumed that was the end of it. "As far as I knew, it was a regular fistfight," he says. "I never saw or knew of a knife being pulled out. We didn't have any clue until a couple of weeks later."
That clue arrived at about 5 a.m. at Aguilar's Anaheim compound, which includes two buildings that housed members of Set Free; his own house; and another building where his sons and their families live that hosts a cabana and a pool and doubles as the headquarters of the Set Free Church. Surrounding the Set Free compound were more than 150 police officers from Anaheim, Newport Beach and other cities; Orange County Sheriff's deputies; and federal drug agents.
Aguilar awoke to the blast of flash grenades followed by the sounds of dogs barking, helicopters hovering overhead and police yelling through a megaphone. "We saw a tank out front and all these SWAT-team guys," Aguilar says. "Brother, it was like the end of the world. I believe in the Rapture and all that stuff, and I thought this was the end thing of everything."
Because they were certain the Set Free Soldiers were really gang members masquerading as Harley-riding evangelists, police didn't break down doors. Instead, they called Aguilar and instructed him to have everyone-including his wife, two sons and several of his grandchildren-come out with their hands up. That accomplished, police searched the compound. Instead of finding drugs or caches of weaponry, they found three items: a Colt pistol in the bedroom of Aguilar's son-in-law Michael Timanus, a pair of brass knuckles in Matthew's room and a bullet in a jar beside Aguilar's bed.
Citing those items, police charged Aguilar, Matthew and Timanus with attempted murder and a host of other charges, ranging from street terrorism to being a felon in possession of a gun and/or ammunition. However, prosecutors dropped the attempted-murder charges against the trio at their arraignment. Although Aguilar spent only three days behind bars, courtroom proceedings dragged on until May 13 of this year, when Aguilar finally pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of being a felon in possession of ammunition. He received a sentence of time served and three years of informal probation. Timanus, an ex-felon, received a sentence of 210 days in jail for the pistol. Matthew, who had no criminal record, pled guilty to a misdemeanor for having the brass knuckles. On Nov. 16, a judge dismissed the charge, citing the fact that Matthew had stayed out of trouble for six months.
According to Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney's office, two Set Free members, including the knife-wielding Quiñones, admitted in their plea agreements the motorcycle club was actually a criminal enterprise. "The inference is that Mr. Aguilar is a criminal street-gang member," Schroeder says. "We had the evidence to prove that but decided for trial reasons that we didn't want to use that evidence at this time."
Although he's one of Aguilar's fiercest critics, Calvary Chapel's Fong never believed for a second that Aguilar intentionally picked a fight with the Hells Angels, he says. "I don't think he would ever have anyone stabbed. I think if someone tried to hurt their pastor, someone in Set Free would stab someone, and that's self-defense, and I know the Hells Angels are bullies," Fong says. "Phil Aguilar isn't crazy. He's an egotistical man, and I think he's been broken, which is good. But he can still do good in the community if he's a real Christian."
On a recent morning, a rainy mist settles over the Set Free compound. Despite the overcast skies, Aguilar is dressed in a T-shirt bearing the logo of the Set Free Soldiers and his eyes are invisible behind his trademark black sunglasses. About 90 minutes into an interview with the Weekly, there's a loud screech of rubber followed by the crunch of metal upon metal. Aguilar winces at the noise and jogs to the front of his house, where Matthew is already standing.
Thirty feet away, a gray pickup truck sits in the intersection with its front end smashed by a Chrysler sedan that was making a left turn. Aguilar checks with the driver, a stunned-looking middle-aged Latino in a cowboy hat, to make sure he's okay. He asks Matthew to see if he or the other driver needs any help, and then he walks back to the patio to resume the interview. A few minutes later, Matthew comes jogging over, laughing and shaking his head. "The guys that caused that crash were undercover cops," he says. "They're all standing out there with the cops who arrived, saying that they made the turn because they were following a suspect."
Despite the obvious humor (Aguilar had just finished talking about how often police roll up and down his street), Matthew isn't laughing much these days. "It's hard now because I have an arrest on my record," he says. "People think twice about working with you." Matthew used to get work making hip-hop soundtracks for Toyota and McDonald's commercials. "I haven't heard from them since the raid," he says. "This week, I'm making a brochure for a metal-welding company so I don't have to work at Home Depot or something."
The Blackie's incident and Aguilar's subsequent arrest also killed what would have been Set Free's biggest publicity coup ever: a proposed A&E reality-television show about him called Saint or Sinner. The network had already paid six figures to have a pilot episode produced, but it pulled the plug after the raid. Meanwhile, Aguilar had to sell two of the buildings that used to house members of his church to pay for his legal expenses. The church now meets at the banquet room of a nearby hotel.
"Everybody thinks I'm outlaw," he says. "I was in Huntington Beach last week for a surf contest, and a large majority of the people who saw me said they thought I was locked up this whole time. We have a record of 30 years of no violence, just this one incident. What happened was an injustice. They got the wrong guy."